With 51 wickets
from his first seven Tests, Vernon Philander
would have been thought to enter the England series as the South African bowler to watch. But he was not.
Local media were cynical about Philander's chances of further success. They thought English conditions would be his undoing, especially as he had only played at home and in New Zealand at that point in his short career.
His discipline outside the off stump and subtle swing were scoffed at. They were skills any village cricketer possessed, they said. They did not expect what they saw as Philander's limited ability to compare to the swing of Dale Steyn and the bounce of Morne Morkel, and thought it would shrink into the shadows of what James Anderson and Stuart Broad would produce.
After the first two Tests it seemed they were right. Philander only managed five wickets at The Oval
combined and it seemed batsmen had worked him out. As long as they could get into line and show a little more patience than he did, they would be able to deal with him. Philander's powers appeared in decline, his frustration grew, and his impact was minimal.
It took a big occasion at a big venue to revive him. After England managed a slender six-run first-innings lead in what was a must-win match for them at Lord's, South Africa set about building a target. Philander contributed 35 precious runs in addition to the 61 he scored in the first innings and the jokes about him being in the side for his batting began.
He not only helped South Africa set England a target of 346, he almost single-handedly ensured the home side did not get there. The secret to Philander's second-innings performance was that he did not change anything. He depended on the strategies he always relied on to claim wickets, and it worked.
Alastair Cook had been trapped lbw by Philander the match before when he was stuck in the crease as a delivery pitched in line and shaped back in to him. Although he reviewed it then, it was obvious even to the naked eye that it would go on to hit the top of off stump. At Lord's, Cook was dismissed in identical fashion. Philander pitched it up, ensured the ball moved just enough to beat the opener's defensive push and cannon into his front pad. Cook didn't review. He knew it would hit the top of off. He was right.
In his next over Philander showed how he causes indecision in batsmen's minds. Again it was the fuller length, but Andrew Strauss, in his 100th Test, did not know whether the ball would go away from him or come back in. With only seconds to judge, he decided to leave it. Wrong. It held its line and smacked him on the knee roll in front of middle stump.
That was work enough for one afternoon. Philander's burst on the fourth evening ensured England slept uneasy going into the final day of the series. Then he returned to make the next morning just as unpleasant.
He beat Jonathan Trott's bat repeatedly and then turned his attention to Ian Bell. It only took two deliveries to baste the No. 4 before Philander roasted him. He beat him with a short ball, then with one slightly fuller, and then Bell edged the third one to Graeme Smith at slip. At 34 for 3, the target seemed as far away as the summer, which threatened to arrive but barely shone through the rain all series.
A run-out, Trott being dropped at third slip by Jacques Rudolph, a fighting fifty from Jonny Bairstow that ended with Imran Tahir's last Test wicket to date, all set the scene for an almighty fightback from a No. 1 side desperately clinging on to the mace. Matt Prior batted with the tenacity so often associated with wicketkeepers, and had handy contributions from Trott and Broad to aid him.
At tea, the match was still alive. England needed 125 runs in the final session and three wickets in hand. Prior and Graeme Swann had settled well. Eight overs after the interval, they only required 65, although the new ball was looming. Tahir caused a run-out eight balls before the second nut was due, but Prior was still there and Smith was chewing his fingernails in nervousness. He did not take the new ball as soon as it become available, though, allowing Tahir one more over to try and burgle the ninth man.
Eventually Smith had to use the weapon at his disposal, and Steyn bowled a vicious opening over. Philander partnered him, but with none of the same fire and fury. His first delivery seamed away from Anderson, full and a good length, his second the same, and his third moved gently away from Prior. And then he did it again. Prior could not resist the drive and edged to Smith at first slip.
The next ball was Philander's signature delivery: full, seaming away and taking the edge, accounting for Steven Finn. It also gave him his seventh Test five-for and his team the coveted Test mace.
Like the encroaching of the tide on the shoreline, Philander's performances in England gradually got better until he reached full capacity. He is not express pace, neither does he extract much from the surface, but he completes South Africa's attack. His intricate use of movement and unwavering accuracy are the third component in a pack that now has it all, and considering the difference he has made since his debut, there was something fitting about him being the man who took South Africa to No. 1.
Afterwards Philander was asked what he had to say to those who called him nothing more than a county trundler. He leaned forward on his folded arms and shot the questioner a look of pure disgust. "Stats don't lie," he spat out. In his case, they definitely don't.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent